Out with the netbook, in with the ultrabook! The term, touted by Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), describes a featherweight laptop built in a smaller form factor yet with enough internal horsepower to handle a full complement of desktop software. Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) MacBook Air, in other words.

Not everybody gets it. Ask Amazon.com to find you an Ultrabook and you'll get results for "MacBook Air," "netbook," and "zenbook." The e-tailer doesn't classify ultrabooks as a distinct category, and that's despite Intel claims of 75 ultrabook designs on the way from Asus, Acer, Dell (Nasdaq: DELL), and Toshiba, among others.

Feature-rich and design-poor
To look at the ultrabooks in development is to see sweating PC executives failing to understand that feature lists are immaterial. Call it the "can-do" syndrome. Ultrabooks can:

  • Pack a lightweight PC experience on a 15-inch screen!
  • Accept your voice for common computing commands!
  • Embed touchscreens!
  • Leverage near field communications (NFC) technology!

The whole pitch has a Ron Popeil but-wait-there's-more feel to it, all without explaining why consumers would want one. It's as if the entire industry is saying, "You like the MacBook Air? Then you'll looooove our new ultrabook!" I'm baffled anyone takes these devices seriously.

The first step to fixing the problem is to admit you have one in the first place
PC makers think they have no other choice. Look at the data. PC sales dipped 1.4% worldwide and 5.9% while here in the United States. Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) led domestic decliners with 26.1% fewer systems shipped in Q4.

Apple was the only gainer. Mac shipments rose 25.8% to 5.2 million in the company's blowout fiscal first quarter. A report in the admittedly sketchy DigiTimes, issued before Apple reported results, says the Air was probably responsible for 1.2 million of that total -- a 20% year-over-year increase.

There's also the iPad to consider. Last week's earnings report from Cypress Semiconductor (Nasdaq: CY) suggested weakening Android tablet sales in the same quarter that Apple sold 15.4 million iPads. Amazon's Kindle Fire appears to be the only tab winning the war for customers.

See the problem? PC makers need something to keep Apple from taking over the computing world, and ultrabooks have become the go-to answer. Therein lies the problem. Ultrabooks may very well fill a hole for vendors, but they don't solve a problem the MacBook Air hasn't already addressed in some way.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team. He owned shares of Apple at the time of publication. Check out Tim's Web home, portfolio holdings, and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

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